'Vocational qualifications can drive social mobility, but we need clarity about what they stand for'

TES Opinion

Rod Bristow, president of Pearson UK, writes:

Alan Milburn's Child Poverty and Social Mobility Commission makes a clear and compelling case for change to improve social mobility in the UK. There's a long way to go in a country where disadvantaged young people are over twice as likely to be unemployed or inactive after leaving education.

While some will argue that education is too important to be reduced to an instrument of employability, the crying shame of disadvantage passed from one generation to another, of wasted talent and impoverished lives provides the most powerful argument of all that it really is time for all education leaders to step up to the plate; to become the new warriors for social mobility. What's more, our own research has shown that parents of children from all backgrounds want education, above all else, to be a better preparation for work.

For many years educationalists have bemoaned the lack of a parity of esteem for vocational education. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised, because we've seen conflicting evidence about its value. On the one hand, recent data has shown that vocational courses can be a powerful driver of social mobility, a mechanism helping students from less advantaged backgrounds access higher education for the first time.

More students now go to university with a BTEC (nearly one in four) than ever before and those who have done BTEC courses are much more likely to come from socially disadvantaged groups than those doing A-level (40 per cent of students entering university with BTECs have parents who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. For our A-level entry students, the figure is just 20 per cent). These students do well once they are at university, and when they leave.

And yet, an A-level is still a more universally accepted 'currency' for access to university than a BTEC, so there is an understandable tendency for it to be seen as a pathway only for those unlikely to succeed at the academic route. That a BTEC may be as widely accepted as an A-level for access to a good job is not enough to overcome the labelling of vocational education as for the less able. This labelling is of course, while understandable, no less damaging to what is an increasingly valuable route through education.

These pathways are valuable because they support a career, not only a job. Even those who do A-levels could potentially benefit more from the vocational route. But, again understandably, they won't choose it if the acceptability of its currency is not clear enough. So, the solution to the perennial 'problem' of parity of esteem is not better marketing of vocational pathways; it is sharper clarity about the sort of knowledge and the standards they represent, requiring that combination of thinking and doing. After all, the days of 'academically' gifted managers doing all the thinking and making all the decisions in today's organisations are long gone. Workers need as much brain power as their managers because the sharp divide between thinking and doing is no longer as relevant as it was. That's why students are increasingly choosing to study a mixture of both A-levels and BTECs.

The value of vocational routes to individuals and to national economies is well understood in many other countries. One much-analysed jurisdiction is Singapore whose approach to vocational study is nuanced and impressive – a system of ‘bridges and ladders’ so that young people can follow vocational pathways and later cross to academic ones, or vice versa. They understand that people learn things in different ways at different points in their lives. In Singapore, many young people opt for the practical route, because they can see it leaves their options open; they can go to university or get a job. The advantage of these flexible routes is to make the system more responsive to fast changing economic needs.

The issue of what education is delivering will affect higher education as much as it does schools and colleges. That's why we need routes that enable young people to realise their ambitions in a modern economy whether they be academically or practically inclined.

In the UK, vocational qualifications need better clarity in what they stand for, and indeed that's the driving force behind the changes we are making to our BTECs. In what some term as ‘the white heat of the Third Industrial Age’, we also need to see the white heat of change in what education can deliver for our children.

That change will require more than just conviction about the cause of social mobility. It will require the involvement and support of the very best schools, colleges, employers and universities in this country. The prize could hardly be bigger; that education becomes even more than a weapon in the fight for improved social mobility; it also improves the social and economic well-being of the world we live in.

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